In 1976 the Marine Corps Gazette published a two-part article by this author entitled "Crimes in Hostilities." It analyzed acts committed by U.S. Army and Marine Corps personnel in Vietnam that could have been characterized as war crimes. As submitted and accepted by the publication's Editorial Board, the article began with the description of a 1970 crime committed by Marines. The editor (not the present editor) refused to publish the article unless an Army incident was substituted; the Marine Corps would not be portrayed in a negative way in the pages of the Gazette. This reviewer relented, describing instead the massacre of civilians at My Lai on 16 March 1968 by soldiers of the U.S. Army's 23rd (Americal) Division.
Five years later, as the course director for the Marine Corps Law of War course, I observed that the normally attentive officer-students became less so as the instructor teaching the war crimes class described the atrocities of the German Army during its World War II campaign in Russia. The problem, slow in coming, should have been obvious: the students saw little relevance i.e., Marines aren't Nazis. Marines don't do that-or so thought the students. After we substituted actual Marine incidents from Vietnam, the students' attention was undivided. We learned then unless we are aware of and learn from our mistakes, and determine their cause, they are likely to be repeated. The incident at Son Thang, the most serious Marine incident (in number of victims), was an instruction centerpiece.
Although the Son Thang incident is covered in Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by Fire, the official history of Marine judge advocates in Vietnam, we now have an account that can serve as the text to teach us about how war crimes can occur and, as a result, how we can prevent them from ever being committed by U.S. service personnel. Son Thang: An American War Crime (Naval Institute Press, 1997) is that text written by Gary Solis, a professor of law at the United States Military Academy, who twice served in the Republic of Vietnam as a Marine amtrac officer. He authored the highly acclaimed Marines and Military Law in Vietnam before retiring in 1989. Retired Marine Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, Director Emeritus, Marine Corps History and Museums, and assistant division commander of the 1st Marine Division at the time of the trial of the accused Marines, lends invaluable perspective in a foreword to the text.
On 19 February 1970, a make-shift team of five Marines from Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (B/1/7), departed the battalion area at Fire Support Base Ross as a nighttime reconnaissance and ambush patrol, described in terms unique to 1/7 as a "killer team." Operating in the enemy booby trap infested and heavily populated area in southern Quang Nam Province, known to Marines who fought there as the "Arizona Territory," the patrol of volunteers had proceeded 500 meters when they approached Son Thang. Entering the hamlet, civilians occupying one hooch (hut) were ordered outside. Four Vietnamese women-one about 50, a younger woman of 20 who a patrol member observed was blind, a 16-year-old, and a five year old-emerged. After a brief search of the hut, the patrol leader suddenly commanded, "Shoot them! Shoot them! Kill them," and began firing. The other patrol members joined him. Two victims who did not die immediately were shot again where they lay. The patrol proceeded to other huts in the hamlet, murdering a total of 16 unresisting women and children ranging in age from 3 to 50 years before commencing its return to its company area.
Hearing the fire, 1/7's operations officer (S-3) sought a sitrep as to possible Vietnamese or Marine casualties, and number of captured weapons. A patrol spot report advised that that there were six confirmed enemy killed in action. The lie was repeated to their company commander during his debriefing. When the patrol members responded in the negative when asked if they returned with any enemy weapons, the company commander-a first lieutenant commissioned less than two years, but with almost a year in Vietnam-produced an SKS carbine captured previously for the patrol members to turn in to corroborate their story. He repeated the story in another spotrep, knowing that part of it was false.
Battalion headquarters was cautious in its acceptance of these initial reports. The S-3 sought more detail, and the battalion commander asked for the serial number of the SKS. When the company commander questioned patrol members, two informed the lieutenant that "about 12 women and children" had been killed, but claimed that the patrol had been fired upon. The story unraveled further the following day, when 1/7's intelligence officer discovered the bodies in Son Thang.
When one asks, "How could Marines do this?," Solis provides the answers: mostly uneducated, below-average intelligence Marines, the product of Johnson administration policies that forced upon the military chronically unemployable, highschool dropouts (many with criminal records) to fight the Vietnam War, thereby lowering domestic unemployment rates while providing draft exemptions to better-qualified middle- and upper class men; and high personnel turbulence brought about by Marine rotation policies, leading to a lack of unit cohesiveness.
There also was command turbulence. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Charles G. Cooper, was 1/7's third commander in five months (one KIA, one relieved). He arrived little more than a month before the incident. The battalion he found was overextended, exhausted and undisciplined, and riddled with rampant drug and alcohol abuse. Racial tensions were high, as they were throughout the Marine Corps. Cooper's challenge lay in motivating this dispirited unit to conduct the complex counterinsurgency effort expected of it in those waning days of U.S. participation in the war in South Vietnam. A large sign admonishing 1/7 Marines to "Get Some" (that is, to kill the enemy) and a battalion "kill board" comparing the rifle companies' enemy body counts clearly gave emphasis to impressionable young Marines as to how their energies were to be focused.
The patrol leader and principal accused, Randy Herrod, had been awarded a Silver Star while serving with the 3d Marine Division, in part for saving the life of his platoon leader, Lieutenant Oliver L. North. North would return to Vietnam at his own expense to assist in the preparation of Herrod's defense and to testify in his behalf. Herrod's formidable defense team of civilian lawyers and a Marine judge advocate were successful. Herrod was acquitted, as was another patrol member. Two Marines were convicted of multiple counts of murder. The company commander received a letter of reprimand from the division commander for his actions.
The story does not end there. Private First Class Samuel G. Green, Jr. was convicted of 15 counts of unpremeditated murder. The 18-year-old had been a Marine less than five months. The ill-fated 19 February patrol was his first. His case and circumstances-an inexperienced "new guy" on a patrol led by the highly experienced, decorated Herrod-raised the classic law-of-war argument of "superior orders." It was not accepted by the court, but Professor Solis ably summarizes the law and the issues. Green's sentence of a dishonorable discharge (DD) and five years' confinement at hard labor was reduced by the division commander to a DD and a one-year confinement. On review, highly decorated Marine First Lieutenant James Webb, working for the Secretary of the Navy and later to become the Secretary of the Navy himself, saw an injustice in Green' s conviction. He began a lengthy campaign to upgrade Green's discharge-ultimately succeeding when, in 1978, the Board for Correction of Naval Records changed it to a general discharge. But Sam Green would never know; frustrated by the process, he committed suicide in 1971.
"Marines don't do that." But some Marines did commit acts of murder in Vietnam. Whether these acts always met the technical requirements to constitute a "war crime" is irrelevant. Each act reflected adversely on the Marine Corps, on the United States, and on the many Marines who served honorably in Vietnam. Still it is inappropriate that this incident be seen as the Marine Corps' "My Lai," for at least two reasons: The number of victims, while serious, did not begin to approach the hundreds of unarmed civilians massacred at My Lai; and, in contrast to the effort by the leadership of the My Lai division and subordinate units to cover up that massacre, the incident at Son Thang was duly investigated and its perpetrators prosecuted because it was promptly reported by Lieutenant Colonel Cooper, as was customary in Marine units in Vietnam. One can appreciate how much worse the situation would have been had the murders gone unreported, only to be discovered subsequently.
Son Thang details an incident caused by failures at virtually every level of the chain of command, which made such an occurrence virtually inevitable. It raises serious questions that merit study at Marine Corps and other service schools. Some have been addressed by Army and Marine Corps policymakers since Vietnam. The value of the corrective measures taken are manifested by Army and Marine Corps performance in Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Somalia, and elsewhere. Based on study of the Son Thang incident, some merit reexamination at appropriate levels, such as:
- At the national level, what potential risk to military discipline and mission accomplishment occurs with a civilian-imposed social experiment? Certainly all do not have the same effect. Racial integration of the military has been successful. But the Johnson administration's "dumbing down" of the military during the Vietnam War was a major failure, and without a doubt a key factor in the Son Thang incident.
- At the unit level, how do service personnel policies affect a unit's ability to accomplish its mission? Operation "Mixmaster," the plan that sent 3d Marine Division Marines who had served less than a full tour to the I st Marine Division when the former departed Vietnam in 1969, brought Marines accustomed to fighting uniformed North Vietnamese units-including the 1/7 patrol leader on 19 February 1970-into the far more complex counterinsurgency environment of the latter. The Son Thang incident argues for examining cause-and-effect of such decisions.
- At the unit level, where is the balancing point between motivating Marines to "close with, engage and destroy" enemy forces, and words that instead may encourage atrocities such as occurred at My Lai and Son Thang? The Vietnam veterans who became the military leadership of the 1980s and 1990s wisely turned their backs on the body-count mentality of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, which Professor Solis correctly suggests was a factor in the Son Thang murders. A more precise line is possible: motivation to fight-while making it clear what actions will not be tolerated.
- At the small-unit level, the company commander was faced with the classic dilemma of looking out for his own men, as opposed to reporting to higher authority what appeared to be a major crime. If ever there was a candidate for a "What do you do now, lieutenant?" case study, it is the situation in B/I/7 on the night of 19-20 February 1970.
- Finally, how effective is law-of-war training in the U.S. military? A preliminary answer is: far better than it was during the Vietnam War. Marine officers who took the Marine Corps Law of War course rated it as some of the best instruction of their careers, consistent with their understanding of the need for a discipline fighting force. Some wondered, however, why (in some cases) they had advanced to the grades of lieutenant colonel and colonel before receiving the instruction, and why the five-day course was available to so few-fewer than 200 per year. In an increasingly crowded training schedule, one must balance competing requirements. But each service needs to assess periodically whether its members are receiving law-of-war training "commensurate with [their] duties and responsibilities," as required by DoD Directive 5100.77. Training alone will not prevent Son Thang. But it is an essential preventive element.